Sass Mahuika talks to Justine Tyerman about her remarkable journey from self-loathing to self-love and from bedridden to body builder . . .
Rain was bucketing down and the temperatures were plummeting, but it takes more than adverse weather to keep Sass Mahuika away from her sessions at the YMCA. She showed up as usual, just on 11, ready for a workout with her personal trainers, Steve Allen and Gerald Eaton.
Sass’s achievements at the gym put me to shame. I’ve been admiring her from afar for about two years now. She used to come in a wheelchair and just do upper body exercise, the sweet smile on her face, masking her unshakeable determination to lose weight and get out of the wheelchair.
Now she walks through the door, beaming — with the aid of crutches — and the other day I saw her doing 40kg dead lifts with no support at all.
It’s hard to believe this sparkly 57-year-old was once bedridden, morbidly obese and so full of self-loathing, she didn’t want to live.
“I was 224kg and so overweight I couldn’t fit in the shower. My 14 and 15-year-old daughters used to carry me outside and hose me down every night, summer and winter.
“I had a huge apron of fat I had to lift up so they could hose under it. I was very particular about my hygiene,” she says.
Sass was bedridden for two and a half years and then in a wheelchair for nine years as a result of an accident which caused thoracic and sciatic damage. Her specialist told her she would never walk again.
“I believed him, and plunged into a state of dark depression. I had to say goodbye to participating in my children’s sports and education, ensuring they got all the things I never had. My daughters, Shekinah and Henipeepi were training for the world waka ama champs coached by Kiwi Campbell at the time, and I used to help out. It was devastating having to give it all up.”
Sass was turned down for home help so Shekinah and Henipeepi became her caregivers.
“They fed me generous portions as it was my only pleasure and it stopped me writhing in pain from nerve damage.
“As I lay in bed, the weight started to pile on and I lost all sense of pride and dignity.”
The strong and active mother of six who had coped with her husband’s death from cancer in March 1996, admits she descended into self-pity.
“I had no purpose in life, I was tired of the pain, tired of being tired, tired of living . . . and I didn’t want to be a burden on my family.
“The turning point came when I was at a particularly low ebb. Henipeepi asked me: ‘Mum, don’t you want to see your grandchildren?’ “She was 19 and afraid to tell me she was pregnant. My children had lost their father and were frightened of losing their mother too.
“That moment changed my life, immediately and completely. Henipeepi gave me a reason to live and a purpose in life again.”
Sass delivered the baby herself at Gisborne Hospital, “an amazing, life-changing experience”.
“I brought Shekhan into the world . . . from my wheelchair. Needless to say I have a very special bond with her.
“I had the privilege of caring for her and I bathed her every day for a month. She is the most precious gift.
“My little ray of hope is now six years old. Shekhan made my life worth living again. She made me want to change and gave me the will to do it.”
In May 2012, Sass began attending Zumba classes at Gisborne Fitness, doing upper body exercise from her wheelchair, and also working with personal trainers at the YMCA.
With a new regime of clean healthy eating and regular exercise, she managed to shed a whopping 110kg in 22 months.
She was such a star at Zumba, she was flown to Orlando, Florida in August last year to receive an inspirational award from Zumba founder Beto Perez and events co-ordinator David Topel.
Sass spoke onstage from her wheelchair to an audience of 8000 and was interviewed on TV and radio by journalists from all over the world. By then she weighed 114kg.
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